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Seize the Day: Rewatching Dead Poets Society

Updated on August 11, 2014
Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) © Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures
Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) © Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures

"Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."

That's the ethos that Robin Williams' character, Professor John Keating, tries to instill on his students in Peter Weir's 1989 film, Dead Poets Society. The feeling that life is short, and that we should make the best of every opportunity we can. After several years, I gave this wonderful film a rewatch recently, and it was as great as I remembered it to be.

Set in the super-conservative Welton Academy for Boys during the late 50s, the film follows a group of students, who are inspired by Keating's teachings. Keating, who is a former student of Welton, arrives as the new English professor, and his impassionate lectures serve as a catalyst for some of the boys, who decide to follow Keating's footsteps and revive the titular "clandestine" group. The Dead Poets Society meet in a nearby cave to drink and smoke, but most importantly, to share poetry.

Dead Poets Society promotional picture © Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures
Dead Poets Society promotional picture © Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures

Aside of that, each of the boys is inspired and encouraged individually in different ways by Keating. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) gets the courage to "woo" a girl he has fallen in love with, even though she has a boyfriend. Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) becomes more free-spirited and liberal, albeit not necessarily thinking of the consequences. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is encouraged to follow his dreams of acting and audition for a play, defying his father orders. And finally, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), who is the most introverted of the group, is inspired to come out of his shell and explore his talent for poetry.

Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) © Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures
Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) © Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures

Despite the prominence of the characters of Keating and Neil, it is Todd in which the film focuses more. It is his character arc the one that the film follows through, from his arrival to Welton and him meeting his future friends, through his struggles in class, with his friends, and in writing, and finally how he reacts to the climatic events of the film. Hawke, who was 18 at the time, shows early in his career why he went on to become a star. He plays the shy, introverted Todd perfectly, and his transformation is completely believable. The actors that play the rest of the boys are pretty good too, most notably Sean Leonard as the conflicted Neil, and Hansen as the controversial Charlie (or "Nwanda").

But the showiest role belongs easily to Robin Williams. Not because he overacts it; quite the contrary, his performance as Keating is very subtle, at least by Williams' own standards. But he owns the best lines, and he delivers them with such an endearing confidence that makes you want to be in that classroom for a whole semester. Despite having a spotty reputation because of some film choices, Williams has proved his talent repeatedly, from his comedic and improvisational skills (Good Morning Vietnam, Aladdin) to his more dramatic turns (Good Will Hunting, One Hour Photo). His performance as Keating is, like in Good Morning Vietnam, a comfortable middle ground between drama and light comedy. His performance is not over-the-top showy, but still makes you chuckle. His emotions aren't forced, but subtle. His Oscar nomination for this role was well deserved.

Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) © Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures
Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) © Touchstone/Buena Vista Pictures
 
Dead Poets Society
Release date
June 2, 1989
Director
Peter Weir
Writers
Tom Schulman
Starring
Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard
Duration
128 minutes
Budget
$16,400,000
Box office
$235,860,116

The film is directed by Peter Weir, who would go on to direct The Truman Show, which presents similar themes. Both films present characters that are encouraged to break away from their "pre-programmed" paths to make their own destiny. The characters in both films are afraid to explore life away from what they already know or what its expected of them, but are inspired to walk away from that road and find their happiness in their own terms.

I hadn't seen this film in more than a decade, so I'm glad to say it was as good as I remembered it. Great performances from everyone involved, and a solid, inspiring script. I know some people dismiss it as manipulative, but as a teacher myself, I can only hope to have an iota of the impact that Keating has in the film on my own students. Grade: A

2014 UPDATE

With the passing of Robin Williams today, the words of Mr. Keating resonate more than ever. "Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary". Williams, a man that arguably lived an extraordinary life, yet spent most of it haunted by his inner demons. Still, no one can deny the impact his life had, whether it is in the people around him, the actors that shared the screen with him, or the industry overall. His "verse" is written in the lives he touched, in the tears he drew out, and the laughs he caused. Now, what will *your* verse be?

 
Grades
RottenTomatoes
85%
IMDb
7.9 /10
Thief12
A

Dead Poets Society Official Trailer

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    • Thief12 profile image
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      Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Thanks, adecourv! He really had a lot of great performances, but this is among his best IMO.

    • adecourv profile image

      Alex deCourville 3 years ago

      Dead Poet's Society is one of Williams's finest performances, and a good pick for a tribute film.

    • Thief12 profile image
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      Thief12 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

      brianlokker, thanks! hope you enjoyed rewatching it X-D

    • brianlokker profile image

      Brian Lokker 4 years ago from Bethesda, Maryland

      Good review and analysis of the film. I loved this movie when it came out (it's a natural, I guess, for an English major), and it's been on my list of films to re-watch. You've moved it up the list.

    • Thief12 profile image
      Author

      Thief12 4 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Thanks for the comments!

      truthfornow, some of the young actors have made their names later in their careers. Although Hawke is easily the most known, Robert Sean Leonard made a name for himself as Wilson, in House MD. Also, the tall one that plays Pitts is the son of Sam Waterston (McCoy in Law & Order).

    • truthfornow profile image

      truthfornow 4 years ago from New Orleans, LA

      I forgot Ethan Hawke was in that movie. My, how the time just goes by. Doesn't feel like it was all that long ago when the movie came out. It is a great movie for poets.

    • Victoria Lynn profile image

      Victoria Lynn 4 years ago from Arkansas, USA

      Great review. I need to see this again, too. Like prairieprincess, I appreciate this movie also as an English teacher. Such a powerful movie. Great job!

    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 4 years ago from Canada

      Thief12, I am happy to read this review of my one of my favourite movies. You make a great point that Williams is quite restrained, for him! I have shown this movie several times in my literature classes, and always found a wealth of teachable scenes and opportunities to teach poetry from it. Thanks for this. and nice to meet a fellow teacher!

    • Thief12 profile image
      Author

      Thief12 4 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Thanks for the comment!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      This is an awesome hub and great review. Like you, I hadn't seen this movie in quite some time, but watched it about a year ago and it was very moving. Voted up!

    • Thief12 profile image
      Author

      Thief12 4 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Thanks for the comment. Like I said in the hub, I also hadn't seen it in a long time, and it was very nice to revisit it.

    • Georgie Lowery profile image

      Georgianna Lowery 4 years ago from Lubbock, TX

      This was such a great movie and I haven't seen it in a very long time. It's definitely worth rewatching. Thanks for the interesting take on it!

    • IslandBites profile image

      IslandBites 4 years ago from Puerto Rico

      Great review, excellent film!